Leadership lessons from a lower leg tattoo

Leadership lessons from a lower leg tattoo

As I was laying on the table while Kevin Stress of Enso Tattoo was finishing up my tattoo, I thought about the experience and, as always, looked for the learning I could gingerly walk away with.

I think that leaders will see some correlation to how things may/may not work within organizations through my experience. I believe the processes work at both micro and macro level and we can learn from any experience...not matter how small. The real "a-ha" moments for me were the last two in the process.

  • Create the vision - I spent about 6 months thinking about what I wanted in terms of components and size for the tattoo. I did my research on the style I thought would be best and how I could incorporate an existing tattoo into the new one. I will share that I first had the idea about 6 months before I started "actively" thinking about as that is my process. By the time I actually verbalized the idea to Lisa (my wife) I had actually already decided to do it. Does this sound familiar to any leaders?

  • Find the right talent - This took me about 3 months. I scoured many social media platforms and reviewed the work of several artists before I decided on the person I thought would be best. This was not something I took lightly because the of the size of the project and the long-term impact. The artwork was only one part of the process because I also needed to meet the person who would be doing the work and ensure we had a fit there as well.

  • Share your vision - I set up a consultation with Kevin so we could meet and I could explain what I wanted to ensure it was something he could be excited about as well. This is a critical step because I was willing to co-create with him and trust his skill and experience to guide me. My thoughts were conceptual but I had to be willing to listen to him explain to me how he might be able to bring my vision to life. I shared my goal of incorporating an existing tattoo and also shared the elements I selected. These were important to me because of what they represented so I was not willing to negotiate them but was open to suggestions on how to make it happen.

  • Empower others - After we agreed that my non-negotiables were realistic, I took my hands off the wheel and let Kevin drive. At this point, I had confidence that he was going to turn my vision into reality so long as I stayed in my lane from this point forward. He asked me about design and color selection and I told him those were his decisions. Why in the world would I go to an artist and tell them how they should design a work of art? In my opinion, this was the most critical part of the process because I was willing and able to turn over control to someone more talented once we had a shared vision.

  • Commit to the process - This was not going to happen quickly. I have a fairly pronounced sense of urgency and lean towards immediate gratification. Once I make up my mind, I like to make shit happen which is not always a good thing...for me or others close to me. The timing of this project was dependent on many variables so I had to be patient and willing to allow it to play out. We had three main challenges and those were: my schedule, Kevin's schedule, and the healing process. It ended up taking roughly 15 hours over 13 months but the end result was exactly what I had envisioned.

  • Sit with the pain - As I reflect back on the experience, this is where some real insights happened for me. As we sat down to begin the tattoo, Kevin shared with me that he was not a "talker" so he would be focused exclusively on tattooing and not conversation. This was refreshing for me because I spend my days in conversation and relish some quiet time. I was usually at the shop in the evening so the majority of the time, it was just Kevin and I there with the radio on..and nothing else. I made the decision to forgo headphones or other distractions and focused on the experience. By experience, I mean the pain. Sitting for 3-4 hour tattoo sessions is interesting because you learn to sit with your pain. The pain also changes because different parts of your leg provide different levels/types of pain. Your calf isn't that bad but your shin and Achilles tendon are a much different discussion. There is also the challenge of positions you have to assume given that he is tattooing your entire lower leg. They are not all comfortable but you want to ensure it is easy for him so he can do his best work. I will also share that Kevin is focused and can work for long stretches without a break...that means fewer breaks. I decided that I should focus on the pain because it was part of the process and I had asked for it and that sitting with it was not something to avoid. It drove home the point that pursuing something meaningful requires discomfort.

  • Realize over isn't done - Kevin finished my tattoo last week but this is far from done. I now have to take care of the tattoo for weeks to ensure it fulfills our shared vision. When he finished, he wrapped my leg in Saran-Wrap and taped it up which is how it would stay for the next 12 hours or so. For those who have not had a lower leg tattoo, when you assume a vertical position and all of the blood starts flowing into the leg, it feels like someone is beating on you with a bat. I drove home from Columbus and by the time I arrived I could not get my leg up fast enough. Sleeping is an entirely different experience...I'll leave it at that. The next morning, I unwrapped my leg and hopped in the shower. I will just say that essentially my lower leg was an open wound so imagine how hot water and soap felt. It continued to bleed through out the day and then the swelling started. I share these experiences as a way to relay that it will be several months before I will be fully healed. I will need to pay close attention and can't just go back to business as usual. I think that there are times when leaders think that a project is over but it isn't really done and it still needs attention to ensure it is successful. By project, I mean the people involved. Leaders can often lose focus and tire of projects after awhile which can negatively impact long-term success. Just remember "over isn't done"

Leadership is a relentless pursuit. It is not for the feint of heart nor is it easy. Based on my experiences serving as a coach and advisor to many folks in leadership roles, it is not even something most would recommend. It takes heart to lead..."miles and miles of heart" (gold start to anyone who can tell me what movie that phrase comes from). It requires constant personal and professional growth and the willingness to be right and wrong simultaneously. Leaders live in an ambiguous world where uncertainty rules yet they are challenged with making decisions to move people and organizations forward despite the anxiety and fear of those in their care.

Leaders are often challenged with sitting in the pain of their decisions and are reminded time and time again that over isn't done.

Create the life you don't want to retire from